By Heidi Schumann, ACLR Featured Online Contributor

A recent budget proposal from the Congressional Appropriations Subcommittee highlights the significant concerns about the way resources are spent in pursuit of a fair system of justice. The proposal, as it stood in early May, proposes to defund many juvenile justice crime prevention and juvenile community programs.1 This measure stands in stark contrast to the progressive view the Supreme Court has taken in recent years toward youths in the justice system. In several recent cases, the Supreme Court has chipped away at the idea that juveniles are “little adults” and has recognized that they are developmentally different.2  Supporting juveniles by offering preventative and rehabilitative resources as an alternative to punishment or confinement is both consistent with this emerging view point and reinforced by it. 

Collectively, Roper v. Simmons,3 Graham v. Florida,4 and Alabama v. Miller5 recognize that juveniles cannot be treated in an identical manner as adults under the law. In Miller—the most recent case dealing with this issue—the Court looked at evidence of brain development as well as called upon their own observations to determine the unconstitutionality of sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without the possibility of parole.6 The analysis that supports each of these cases focuses on the fact that youths are still developing mentally. In the case of sentencing juvenile offenders, the Court determined that youths were less culpable for their crimes and more likely to be rehabilitated because they were still in development and more prone to act irrationally and impulsively.7

In these cases, the Court set out a framework which supports a system that treats juveniles differently. It logically follows that the juvenile justice system should to look to alternatives to the traditional incarceration scheme most often prescribed in adult court. Research also supports this approach. The Pathways to Desistance study, which examined data from patterns of behavior of juvenile delinquents, found that most juvenile offenders, as they mature, also will stop criminal behavior.8Additionally, it found that there was little positive correlation between the amount of time that a juvenile spent in confinement and the likelihood that he or she would reoffend.9 However, many juvenile court systems still punish youths through an adult-like system by imposing probation, confinement, or other restrictions as a punitive measure.10

As evidenced in the study, these types of punitive measures have a limited or even negative impact on youths, especially regarding their likelihood of reoffending.11 When the restrictive and punitive measures are imposed on juveniles, juveniles process and react to them with their characteristic mentality and maturity. As a result, juveniles will likely encounter the same struggle to comply with their punishment as they did when breaking the law in the first place. For example, a youth who is prescribed probation or curfew is still bound by the impulsive and irrational decision making process that influenced his or her decision to engage in the original criminal activity. Therefore, the same mental process governs whether the youth will abide by the probation or curfew terms.12

In addition to “kids being kids,” youths that interact with the juvenile justice system are statistically more likely to have experienced childhood trauma, which is another aggravating factor in reducing the success of punitive or restrictive means of punishment.13 Research has shown that childhood trauma can actually influence how the child’s brain develops, including developmental delays, reduced skills development, and an over-stimulated crisis mode center.14Experiencing childhood trauma not only reduces the success of the traditional methods of punishment, but also leaves wide gaps in areas such as education, skills development, and community support, which can be filled by a preventative or rehabilitative juvenile justice program.

In many instances, childhood trauma can be reduced or avoided altogether with stronger preventative programs. For example, the needs of a child who is exposed to neglect may nevertheless be attended to by a community program or more easily identified by participation in a community program. Involving youths who have already experienced trauma in a community program or therapy, which is designed to improve upon skills or heal the brain from previous trauma, may prevent their criminal involvement. These youths might still be nevertheless prone to criminal activity, but providing resources beforehand will likely curtail the number and extent of involvement. Additionally, the reaction to juvenile criminal activity, even after a finding of delinquency, should still be rehabilitative. Statistically, it is likely that delinquent youths experienced some significant trauma for which therapy could be beneficial. Furthermore, the brain chemistry and the developmental stage of minors alone increases their ability to respond to rehabilitative methods and would likely have a greater impact on preventing future offenses than punitive measures would. If the focus of the justice system switched to offering preventative and rehabilitative opportunities to youths and more resources were dedicated towards that goal, the juvenile justice system would probably have a larger and more positive impact on the community. As a result, the juvenile justice system would provide opportunity rather than perpetuate criminal activity and would have the potential to give troubled youths a chance to grow. Thus, the system could in fact be more just for juveniles and the community.